Tuesday 23 July 2019

Celia Larkin: I'm desolate that evidence of man I shared my life with wasn't accepted

Nothing prepares you for the moment your name is called for you to take the witness stand

Celia Larkin accompanied by her solicitor, Hugh Millar, leaving the Mahon Tribunal at Dublin Castle
Celia Larkin accompanied by her solicitor, Hugh Millar, leaving the Mahon Tribunal at Dublin Castle

I'M SAD that the tribunal has been so damning about a man I once shared my life with, but take some solace from the fact that, having found a number of people to be corrupt, the tribunal has not named Bertie Ahern among them.

I never, in all my years with Bertie, thought him to be corrupt. He could be vague, he could be evasive, belligerent and sometimes downright rude as with his, "That's who I was in bed with last night," comment in 2002, when our relationship was beginning to crumble. But corruption is not something I ever thought him guilty of.

The most difficult part of the whole experience of being a witness in a tribunal has been the emotions it resurrects from the past. When a relationship ends, you work through the anger, the blame game, the grief and you do your best to get on with your life. Publicly, you smile, but it takes a bit longer for your emotions to catch up with the public face.

My relationship had finally ended and I was happily living in the peaceful surroundings of Killaloe, Co Clare, when I got the call to be a tribunal witness.

Piecing together events of 15 years earlier for evidence purposes obviously caused more raw feelings to surface. Unfortunately you can't delve into your memory for some events without stirring the muddy waters of others. However, I have always been a pragmatist. This was something that had to be dealt with. Something I had to go through. Whether I liked it or not.

I arrived in Dublin Castle early on the day I was due to give evidence. My head was pounding, I was sweating, nauseated, and slightly dizzy, struggling desperately to keep some semblance of composure and carry on polite conversation with my solicitor.

The castle had been the scene of many events in my past official life as partner of the Taoiseach, from the momentous and happy occasions of the Blair and Clinton visits to the traumatic experience of the Cardinal Desmond Connell affair. Here I was in the castle courtyard again. Same media scrum. Same lights for television cameras. Same clicking of the camera shutters. Very different circumstances.

It's mad, the things that go through your head. The courtyard is cobble-locked and I was in heels. "Please,God, don't let my heel break, don't let me trip, please, please let me get in the door without incident."

Once inside the door, the scene was overwhelming. The room was huge. It would be best described as a warehouse. The three judges were seated in front on elevated benches. Below them sat Des O'Neill, Henry Murphy, Susan Gilvarry and various legal people for the tribunal. Behind them sat legal representatives for those being investigated, plus representatives for some witnesses, and then myself and my solicitor Hugh Millar. The public gallery situated to the rear of the 'warehouse' was packed to capacity, as was the media area on my left. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife.

Nothing prepares you for the moment you hear your name being called to go to the witness stand, a monstrous wooden structure with a very steep step. Another obstacle course I hadn't bargained for. On the long walk from my seat to the stand the mind-chatter continued. "Had I remembered to bring a hanky?" (My nose always runs when I'm stressed.) "What if I cry?" (I cry so easily, I cry when I'm happy, I cry when I'm sad, I even cry at the Rose of Tralee contest, for God's sake.) I knew my every move was being scrutinised by the media. Every toss of the head, every flick of the eye, anything to hang a story on. I know the score. It's not personal. It's business.

Once in the stand, I did my very best to tune everything else out and just concentrate on the questions. I kept reminding myself, "Just answer the questions, don't analyse anything, just concentrate on answering the questions." At that stage, I was beyond nervous, beyond anger, beyond bewilderment. I was centre-stage in the obscenely expensive theatrical production that the tribunal had become. The questioning seemed to go round in circles. Matters that I felt could have been dealt with in an hour or two went on all day.

During the lunch break, I was accosted in the ladies by Ursula Halligan from TV3.

"How did I feel? Was it awful?" she asked. What the hell did she expect me to say? "No Ursula, it's a piece of cake?"

Did she not know how awful it had to be for someone who had devoted the best part of a decade making a new life on their own? I did my best to change the subject. At that stage, I had become so paranoid I was afraid anything I might say could be twisted in some way -- not that I found that to be the case with Ursula on any occasion -- but I wasn't prepared to utter a word about the tribunal to anybody. My friends had been quizzed by members of the media. I had been offered substantial sums of money for my story. The whole circus was nuts.

As a witness you seem to have no rights. Orders for discovery were made on my bank accounts by the tribunal going back as far as the Eighties. An order for discovery always followed immediately after a request, allowing no time to gather information. The request would arrive in my solicitor's office mid-week seeking detailed information dating back many years, demanding the information by close of business at five o'clock two days later. Not a hope in hell of being able to physically obtain that information in the time given. Then an order for discovery would be clapped on -- not on me, mind you, but on the bank, thus giving the impression to the institution that I had refused to co-operate. I felt intimidated. I had to constantly remind myself that I was only a witness, not to take it personally.

I still, for the life of me, don't know why they wanted my accounts from the Eighties but the only way to object to such unnecessary intrusion into my private business, (and in the absence of any explanation from the tribunal I can only assume it was unnecessary) was to appeal to the courts. A cost I certainly couldn't afford to incur. There seemed to be no guidelines like there are in a court of law. Everything was fair game, relevant or not. I seemed to have been asked the same questions many times in different ways. Then, having been told my initial discussions with them in private were just that -- private and informal -- the wording of what I said was pondered over, analysed and manoeuvred to a surprising extent. I went into the voluntary meeting to give as much information as I could recall. I had no idea that it would turn out like a murder trial where my every move of 15 years previous would be scrutinised. I gave the information the substance of which was documented and available for the tribunal to see, but to me it was more like someone trying to catch you out rather than gather information. It was extraordinary.

In hindsight, there were funny moments. Like when Senior Counsel Henry Murphy, having berated me for not remembering the exact detail of issues, had himself no recollection of whether mobile phones were in use or not 15

years previously. Another was when he contradicted me to say I had been informed that the first informal meeting was in fact an interview when clearly I had not, and had to backtrack when the correct documentation was eventually put up on screen. The uploading of the wrong document was a genuine mistake on his part, I have no doubt.

Looking back I suppose the best way to describe the whole thing would be as an experience. It certainly was that. One I could have done without, one I'm sure could have been carried out much more economically had the theatrics been dispensed with.

I was grateful that I'm fussy about keeping records, because I had every receipt I should have had in relation to the house at Beresford. Ultimately, my evidence was clear, supported and accepted -- it was about what I did with any money handed to me by my then partner.

I am desolate that the evidence of the man I once shared my life with has not been accepted by the tribunal. It is a sad way to close the door on a relationship that ended almost 10 years ago.

Sunday Independent

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